Over the last two years, there has been a revolution within the Labour Party in the UK. The Left has taken control of all the key levers in the party from the national executive committee to the leadership. Only the parliamentary party remains as an obstacle to total domination.
Rewind 37 years to the early 1980s – to the last time the Left came anywhere close to taking over the party. Back then, the right wing of the party had strong allies. While the left had a strong base in the constituencies and the national executive, the right wing was able to lean on certain trade union bosses. The struggle was much more evenly balanced.
Labour had lost the 1979 general election and Thatcher had come to power. Many in the party blamed the outgoing prime minister James Callaghan and his chancellor of the exchequer Dennis Healey. They believed socialist principles had been jettisoned during the 1974-79 Labour government and now wanted commitments to nuclear disarmament, nationalisation and abolishing the House of Lords.
But equally, there were trade union leaders who despised the Left and simply wanted a middle of the road Labour party back in power giving them access to Downing Street once more. They feared Thatcher was creating a society in which the unions would see their membership erode as manufacturing was allowed to decline and a new politics where they were being sidelined.
Things came to an almighty head when Callaghan decided to resign as party leader, having stuck around for a year after losing the 79 election. The Left devoted their energy into taking the deputy leadership. Tony Benn would run against Dennis Healey. This became a vicious battle fought in every constituency and union branch. In the end, by a slim margin, Healey won.
This film captures the intensity and vitriol that was unleashed at that time.
The sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War was arguably the most controversial event during that conflict and one that haunted Thatcher for years. The Belgrano itself was an ancient bit of kit, launched in the 1930s, used by the US in WWII and then sold to Argentina in 1951. This would have been one of the last engagements for this warship had it not been hit by a missile fired from a British nuclear submarine.
The question that Thatcher struggled to answer – and we see her here getting an uncharacteristic roasting from a member of the public – was whether the Belgrano was sailing towards or away from the Falklands. Interestingly, Thatcher doesn’t claim that it was either inside the Exclusion Zone or even sailing towards the islands (in fact, she infers it was sailing away).
The Belgrano sinking became as notorious as the sinking of the Lusitania in WWI. That said, sympathy was in short supply among the majority of the population after the attack by Argentina on HMS Sheffield. But for the left, this issue became a stick to beat Maggie and this video certainly makes compelling viewing.
Papers just released under the 30 year rule show that Thatcher was completely amazed when Argentina invaded the Falklands. I remember seeing the first news of the war broadcast on ITN and it was a bit surreal. There was the footage of Argentine ships heading towards the islands with some admiral on deck with his binoculars.
We look back on the war from the post-1982 world where the Iron Lady looks utterly resolved to defeat the damned Argies. Don’t believe a word of it. The government was caught in headlights. Foreign minister Lord Carrington resigned. There had been warnings about Argentina’s intentions since 1977 and the British embassy in Buenos Aires had been alerting London for months. But when Argentina struck – the Tories initially reeled.
Students of the Thatcher years may wish to investigate what the Tories would have done to the Falkland islanders if the war hadn’t happened. President Reagan and the US establishment wanted Britain to reach some kind of accommodation with the then military dictatorship in Argentina. In those days, the US had installed anti-communists military juntas in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America – no talk of democracy back then!
Also, the idea of the British sending troops into the Americas made many in Washington feel a little queasy – wasn’t this what 1776 had been all about stopping?
Here’s some of the stuff that came out during the Falklands War from my extensive archive…
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at this news item from The Guardian in 1982. A teacher had been hit by a parent but when the case went to court, a London magistrate told the teacher that she had:
wasted ratepayers’ money by bringing the case
being hit was a risk that came with the occupation
she could expect to be hit another six or so times in her career
the best protection was to have a man around
The whole thing was referred up to Thatcher and the Lord Chancellor when unions went ballistic. But you have to remember, this was a time when the unions would have been accused of being soft or trouble making or politically correct. Here’s the article – see what you think!